A Note on Former MP Patrick Mercer and Russia

With the announcement of two suspects in the Salisbury Novichok incident, I am reminded of commentary article about the subject from March in the Yorkshire Post, by the disgraced (1) former MP Patrick Mercer:

Russia was condemned almost immediately, though, condemned by a fragile government and a Prime Minister who was under pressure from a shrieking media to talk tough and damn the niceties.

…But what has Mr Putin to gain from such behaviour?… Mr Skripal… was exchanged – he didn’t run – and has lived in silence ever since. Why would Mr Putin bring international condemnation on himself just before a vital election?

…my Russian friends have 
other theories… whilst an attack on the traitor Segei might be acceptable, Yulia is off limits. Some may see her as unfortunate collateral damage, but Mr Putin’s electoral chances would suffer the same if accusations stuck.

…They also point out that the former, main Soviet Novichok facility was in Uzbekistan which is now under the insecure control of that country and that the formula for these weapons is publicly available. It could be made in advanced laboratories such as those in the US, UK Israel or… Ukraine. Ah, Ukraine – aren’t they in the middle of a dirty, bitter war with Russia at the moment and wouldn’t Mr Putin’s embarrassment at the polls be a great advantage to them?

This analysis is weak, and it is troubling to read coming from the pen of a former Chairman of the House of Commons Counter-Terrorism Sub-Committee. Of course there is nothing wrong in itself with raising alternative theories about the poisoning, but this defence of Russia fails due to a number of glaring difficulties:

1. The notion that Putin’s re-election was dependent on “electoral chances” is naive to the extreme.

2. Skripal may be “living in silence” in so far as he had not made any public statements, but he may have been in a position to provide further assistance to British intelligence agencies, and killing him would have the obvious gain of deterring other potential double-agents.

3. Even if it is true that ordinary Russians would have sympathised with Yulia (which is speculative) (2), if the threat to life and injury she suffered was unexpected “collateral damage” then it obviously would not have been a factor that would have been taken into consideration in advance of the decision to act.

4. Russia may well have been confident that the allegation would not in fact “stick” and that they would get away with it. This is usually the case when someone decides in cold blood to commit a crime.

5. For Ukraine, undertaking such a “false flag” terrorist action would be a massive gamble, disproportionate to the vague prize of “embarrassing” Putin.

These days, Mercer writes on military history, and in February 2017 he took part in a delegation of British academics to Crimea, with a view to “attracting foreign and Russian tourists” to archaeological sites relating to the Crimean War, in words attributed to Mercer by RIA-Novosti. The delegation was denounced by the Ukrainian Embassy in London as “an illegal visit… to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea occupied by the Russian Federation”, and another Ukrainian website, Human Rights in Ukraine, added that

Mercer is effectively recognizing the Ukrainian peninsula invaded by Russia and illegally annexed in 2014 as ‘Russian’, and promising to try to get others to also ignore international sanctions by doing the same.

Neither source appears to have been aware of Mercer’s former high-profile political career, and British media appears to have overlooked the oddness of a former Shadow Minister for Homeland Security getting mixed up in such a controversy.

Notes

1. Mercer resigned following a BBC Panorama sting in 2013, in which he agreed to lobby in Parliament on behalf of Fiji’s sugar industry in return for money and – as a bonus scoop – he expressed the view that an Israeli soldier he had once met looked like “a bloody Jew”.

I have sometimes speculated about why he was targeted for this sting, and three possibilities come to mind: (a) contemptuous comments he had made about the Prime Minister, David Cameron; (b) he was a buffoonish liability due to a constant stream of sensationalising and false claims about terror threats that he would feed to tabloid newspapers, based on discreditable associates who were feeding him false information; (c) anger within the security services at his attempt to smear an ex-lover as mentally ill, given that the woman involved was at the time an assistant to the Shadow Security Minister, Baroness [Pauline] Neville-Jones.

(Incidentally, the “discreditable associates” included a British man who sometimes trolled online as “James Rosposol”, later amended to “James Osposol”. “Rosposol” is the first element in the email addresses of Russian embassies)

2. Mercer may be projecting here, due to his own fondness for Slavic females – at one time he was recorded after a few drinks discoursing on the subject of Ukrainian women: “Ooooh ahhh. They are extraordinary. They ARE extraordinary”.